Wednesday, February 15, 2006

International Study on Arctic Climate Change Produces Startling Findings

Published on Wednesday, February 15, 2006
by Michelle Macafee

WINNIPEG - An extensive international study on the effects of climate change in the Arctic has reached some startling conclusions on issues ranging from how fast polar ice is melting to the impact on Inuit communities.

About 120 scientists from 11 countries involved in the Canadian-led research project, which started in 2002, are meeting in Winnipeg this week to present and discuss their findings.

One of the most surprising for David Barber, a sea ice specialist at the University of Manitoba, was the fact polar ice is melting at a rate of about 74,000 square kilometres each year - an area about the size of Lake Superior - and has been for the last 30 years.

"This is a very significant result, and it's not some sort of trend that's going to shift back the other way," Barber said Tuesday.

Barber added there is increasing concern in the scientific community that there are factors actually speeding up the melt, but he cautions it's too late to reverse the trend.

"The time to act actually was a few decades ago," he said.

"We're not going to be able to shift the economies of the planet to get off this fossil fuel addiction in a week, a year or a decade. But we have to start the process now to have some stability for future generations."

Louis Fortier, a researcher with Universite Laval in Quebec City who led the project, agreed the focus in Canada and internationally needs to be on coping with the reality of global warming and minimizing the damage.

"If we wanted to really change things to avoid the bulk of the impacts of climate change, we would have to totally change our way of life tomorrow," said Fortier.

"We'd have to stop using our cars and reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions by 60 to 80 per cent, which would obviously create major problems."

Climate change models have long predicted global warming would be felt first, and strongest, in the extreme north and south. This research is proving that claim to be bang on, said Barber.

The crux of the research program - known as the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study - was a year-long expedition aboard the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen, which was deliberately frozen in an ice floe in Franklin Bay in December 2003.

Scientists sampled the winter and spring conditions in the Western Arctic, then continued sampling in the open waters of the MacKenzie Shelf until August 2004.

Further research will be done in the coming years to look at the socio-economic, cultural and geopolitical impact of climate change.

But the Inuit, who spend much of the year living off the sea and ice, are already feeling the negative effects, said Fortier.

The ice is not as safe for travel, houses are being washed away as shorelines erode by as much as six metres a year, and food sources such as caribou and seals could eventually disappear and be replaced by other species from other areas within the next century, he said.

Great international hope rests on the Kyoto Protocol to help slow the pace of global warming, although the recent election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has thrown the extent of Canada's participation in doubt.

Fortier calls Kyoto a small step, "like a toddler starting to walk," but said North America and Europe will have to do as much as 20 times more than what is outlined in the deal to really solve the problem.

Further delaying progress is the use of heavier polluting substances such as yellow coal by emerging economies such as China and India.

"This will be extremely polluting but there's nothing we can tell them that will stop that," said Fortier.

"It's difficult for us to say, 'We got rich polluting the atmosphere, creating the greenhouse gases problem, but you can not do it yourself.' "

Copyright © 2006 Canadian Press


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